Friday, April 29, 2022

Updated: A year ago at the blog we were talking about about the disconnect between Musk pontificators and the reporters on the beat. Let's see how that's going

As soon as I run a post, perfect examples start showing up.


Picking up from Wednesday and Noah Smith's misinformed defense of the non-founder of Tesla and PayPal. 

While Musk's attempt to buy Twitter has focused the attention of many in the press and a lot of disturbing stories have come out since last year, many commentators are still perplexed at the hostility toward Elon, particularly among liberals who, according to conventional wisdom, should be the ones who hold him in the highest regard. 

An example from an associate editor of Reason (I assume center-right politically).
Worth noting that by 2021, Tesla had largely dropped out of the clean energy business.
In the fourth quarter of 2017, Tesla reported a 43% drop in solar deployments compared with when it purchased SolarCity. The company ended up losing its market-leading position in 2018 and now hovers around 2% of the residential solar market, according to Wood Mackenzie. In the first and second quarters of 2021, Tesla installed 92 and 85 megawatts of solar, respectively. That’s less than half of what SolarCity was installing per quarter before the acquisition.

Tesla moved some solar employees to work on building the company’s electric cars and batteries, fired other solar employees, and moved others who had been doing new installations to work on repairs and remediation.
And that Musk's relationship with the ACLU is... complicated.
Beyond that, notice that Binion's they-hate-him-because-he's-rich is the same one used by center-left Matt Yglesias a year ago. (see below.)

Like Yglesia, NYT columnist Farhad Manjoo is also generally center-left (though he is also the paper's goto guy for blame everything on liberal hypocrisy stories) 
Quick side note: All justifications of Tesla's valuation start with the assumption that it will have a virtual monopoly in the near future, so I guess he's just an aspirational monopolist. 

I cannot think of an example of a major journalist working this beat who has posted one of these "why is everybody mean to Elon?" tweets. Even at Manjoo's own paper, reporters like Neal Boudette are far more likely to point out false statements from Musk and serious safety issues with Tesla's FSD, even when it means dealing with one of the nastiest troll armies on the internet.


And now the reposting starts. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

It actually takes some effort to devise arguments this conventional and this wrong

It is rare that you come across a comment that is so ill-informed in such an informative way.

Barro is such a creature of the standard narrative that not only does he form his opinions based on the carefully crafted persona of Musk; he assumes that everyone else must be doing the same. If someone disagrees with his take, it has to be due to their reacting differently to that narrative.

E.W. Niedermeyer's response to that same initial tweet could be read as a rebuttal to Barro. 
It's safe to say that no one who has been seriously following Musk and Tesla in the Financial Times,  the LA Times, Business Insider, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, or Wired would attribute the criticism to "fun, futuristic and coded with all sorts of “bro” aspects." 

If anything, it is this reputation as a playful visionary (along with the cultivated misimpression that he is some kind of natural engineer) that has largely shielded Musk from his critics for so long. While it might be possible to find people who like their environmentalism dreary, the vast majority desperately want to live in the kind of world Musk promises and couldn't care less about the bro culture trappings. 

The trouble is, most people paying attention have realized that the man is a habitual liar.

Specifically on the question of climate change, here's a reminder of one reason why environmentalists have been falling out of love with Tesla recently.

Jamie Powell writing for FT Alphaville.

From "Tesla: carbon offsetting, but in reverse"

We’re not the first to point this out by any means, but bitcoin is dreadful for the environment. Still don’t believe it? Well Bank of America published an excellent report last week (which can be found on David Gerard’s blog), on the dominant digital coin. And, in particular, its carbon impact. 

 Here are a few choice stats. 

 Bitcoin -- or to be more precise, bitcoin mining -- currently consumes more energy than Greece, and a touch less than the Netherlands. In theory, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if mining was powered by renewable energy, but 72 per cent of mining is concentrated in China, where nearly two-thirds of all electricity is generated by coal power. 

 For the moment then, bitcoin has carbon emissions that sit comfortably between American Airlines’s output, the world’s largest airline which currently carries 200m passengers per year, and the entire US Federal government. 

 Perhaps the most relevant stat of all, however, is this one:

Monday, May 3, 2021

Josh and the toasty warm take

Following up on a comment by Andrew Gelman, I was going to open this post with a discussion of hot takes, but going through the Twitter feed around this topic, and I saw that lots of mainstream media and political thinkers had the same take, greatly reducing its hotness.

If you'll remember, this started with the following tweet from Josh Barro:

Before we go on, I think it's useful to break down the implicit and explicit points Barro is making. Here's my attempt:

a. Musk is fighting climate change

b. But many environmentalists dislike him

c. Because they disapprove of his style and image

The first two points establish a mystery to be solved; the third offers an explanation. While Barro may have intended this conclusion to be provocative, he treats the premise as axiomatic, as do many others.

And a whole damned essay by James Pethokoukis.

More deeply, Musk is offering an attractive techno-optimist vision of the future. It's one in stark contrast with that offered by anti-capitalists muttering about the need to abandon "fairy tales of eternal economic growth," as teen climate activist Greta Thunberg has put it. Unlike the dour, scarcity-driven philosophy of Thunbergism, Muskism posits that tech-powered capitalism can solve the problems it causes while creating a future of abundance where you can watch immersive video of SpaceX astronauts landing on Mars while traveling in your self-driving Tesla. As journalist Josh Barro neatly summed it up recently, "Environmentalism is supposed to be pain and sacrifice. Because Musk offers an environmental vision that is fun, futuristic and coded with all sorts of 'bro' aspects, he is deeply suspicious and must be stopped."

You'll notice that that these examples include liberals, conservatives and centrists. This is one of the many cases where trying to approach this with an ideological filter not on fails to help, but actually obscures what's going on. The distinction we need to focus on isn't left vs. right but close vs. far.

I don't know of another case where the standard narrative and the story told by reporters on the front lines diverge this radically, and the gap has only grown larger. In one version Musk is a visionary and spectacularly gifted engineer who, though flawed, is motivated only out of a passion for saving the planet. He does amazing things. In the other, he is a con man and a bully who, when goes off script, inevitably reveals a weak grasp of science and technology. Outside of the ability to get money from investors and taxpayers, his accomplishments range from highly exaggerated to the fraudulent.

While this view may not be universal among journalists covering the man, it is the consensus opinion. 

The explanations of Barro et al. are not all that reasonable, but they are probably as good as you can get when you start with the assumption that the standard narrative is right.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The writers didn't waste any time with the next big plot twist

I'm glad I didn't drag my feet about posting yesterday's response to Noah Smith because, at least among business and finance types, the narrative has definitely moved on.

Why would Elon be getting cold feet?

Credit analyst Vicki Bryan has some details and they aren't pretty.

We’ll see. Meanwhile, it’s less clear that Musk “won” Twitter, since no other bidder stepped up to top his $54.20, which was down 26% versus the stock peak last year. Twitter stock still was trading well below that at $51.20 as of Monday’s close—up less than $3 on news of the deal. On Tuesday the stock slumped back below $50.

For good reason. Deal terms revealed so far leave out important detail about where Musk will or even if he will get all the cash he needs to close the deal at some still undetermined date, subject to shareholder approval. And if the deal does close, Twitter’s already strained financial condition will be crushed under billions of expensive new debt its operations can’t afford to service.

No wonder Twitter’s existing bonds have traded lower as the drama has played out—even before the severe credit quality rating downgrades I have warned clients to expect.

Elon's favorite journalist, Linette Lopez fills in more of the picture.

From Business Insider:

As it stands, Twitter does not exactly rake in money — it brought in just under $5.1 billion in revenue last year and posted a net loss of $221 million, in large part due to the settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by some shareholders. But even that doesn't tell the whole story.


The most notable under-the-hood item, according to Bryan, is the roughly $630 million Twitter paid in stock compensation to employees last year. Instead of paying their workers bigger salaries upfront, tech companies like Twitter (and Musk's Tesla) offer employees stock that they then can sell down the line. That can be good for employees who hope that the stock is more valuable when they're able to sell, and it's good for Twitter because the company doesn't have to pay that money out in cash or count it as an expense. But once the company goes private that will change, and employees will need to be compensated in cash. Twitter's debts will need to be paid in cash too.

Analysts cited by the Wall Street Journal estimate that Twitter's annual interest payments would balloon from $52 million in 2021 to $845 million after the buyout. Bryan sees the picture getting even worse because she believes the market is underpricing Twitter's risk. She estimates that Twitter's annual debt payment could hit $1.3 billion in a "worst case" scenario.


It's not just Twitter that's staring down a big debt bill when this transaction closes — Musk himself is going to be on the hook for a whole lot of cash. Last week Musk filed a non-binding letter with regulators detailing how he had secured over $46.5 billion in funding to buy Twitter. Part of that is over $20 billion in cash Musk promises to pay out of his own pocket, presumably by selling a lot of Tesla stock. It also includes a $12.5 billion margin loan that uses $62.5 billion worth of his Tesla stock as collateral. One hedge fund source who spoke on the condition on anonymity to talk freely about the deal told me the terms for this loan were "ugly," and that their fund regularly pays much less to secure debt financing than the richest man in the world may pay to secure Twitter. 


And this is where Musk's Twitter deal threatens the rest of his empire. Not only is he tying up a lot of his net worth in Twitter — he's also putting his other businesses on the line. About one-third of his stake in Tesla will be put up as collateral for the margin loan.  According to the funding letter, if Tesla stock drops 40% — below $400 a share, in this case — he will either have to put up more of his stock or the banks will start selling the stock they have until they get their money back. This is especially risky given that Tesla's stock is already wildly volatile. It was down 30% from its highs at one point in March, and analysts are already projecting Tesla's second half of 2022 to be less profitable than the first.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

I knew when I saw the title of Noah Smith's latest that it was going to be bad. I just didn't realize it would be this bad

We've got a lot to cover. Let's just dive right in.

[Emphasis added]

For one thing, I think Musk is well-positioned to deal with foreign information ops, especially those perpetrated by Russia and China. Russian bots and agents are big on Twitter, and China has been working to build a similar network. This presents the disturbing possibility that the existence of Twitter spells doom for liberal governments — if totalitarians can exercise tight control over their own Twitter-like networks while using info ops to heavily influence the discussion on Twitter itself, it could give them a crucial advantage in the new era of international competition.

I suspect that Musk is thinking about this scary future and how to avert it. When Russia invaded two months ago, Musk instantly shipped thousands of Starlink internet kits to Ukraine. This was crucial in helping the Ukrainians keep their internet running in the face of Russian cyberattacks and bombardments. This demonstrates that Elon values the defense of liberal societies against totalitarian aggression. It stands to reason that he’d also care about this in the case of Twitter info ops as well. Elon famously cares about free speech, but when totalitarian governments use their power to selectively disrupt speech in free societies, that seems pretty detrimental to free speech, and it needs stronger pushback.

We'll get back to China in a minute. For now, though, let's look at Starlink. 

From the Washington Post.

After Russia launched its invasion, Ukrainian officials pleaded for Elon Musk’s [Emphasis in original] SpaceX to dispatch their Starlink terminals to the region to boost Internet access. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route,” Musk replied to broad online fanfare.

Since then, the company has cast the actions in part as a charitable gesture. “I’m proud that we were able to provide the terminals to folks in Ukraine,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell [Emphasis in original] said at a public event last month, later telling CNBC, “I don’t think the U.S. has given us any money to give terminals to the Ukraine.”

But according to documents obtained by The Technology 202, the U.S. federal government is in fact paying millions of dollars for a significant portion of the equipment and for the transportation costs to get it to Ukraine. [Emphasis in original]

On Tuesday, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced it has purchased more than 1,330 terminals from SpaceX to send to Ukraine, while the company donated nearly 3,670 terminals and the Internet service itself.

While the agency initially called it a “private sector donation valued at roughly $10 million,” it did not specify how much it is contributing for the equipment or for the cost of transportation.

Sometime after the announcement, the agency removed key details from its release. It now states that USAID “has delivered 5,000 Starlink Terminals” to Ukraine “through a public-private partnership” with SpaceX but does not specify the quantity nor value of the donations.

USAID agreed to purchase closer to 1,500 standard Starlink terminals for $1,500 apiece and to pay an additional $800,000 for transportation costs, documents show, adding up to over $3 million in taxpayer dollars paid to SpaceX for the equipment sent to Ukraine. [Emphasis in original]

In a letter to SpaceX last month outlining the deal, the USAID mission director to Ukraine said the terminals would be “procured” and sent on behalf of USAID by a third-party contractor, which would “arrange for transportation and delivery of the equipment” from Los Angeles International Airport to Ukraine via Poland.

The letter said the nearly 3,670 terminals donated by SpaceX would come with three months of “unlimited data.” In addition to the more than 1,330 terminals that USAID confirmed it had purchased, the agency earlier agreed to buy a separate 175 units from SpaceX, according to the documents.


It is also unclear whether the price the U.S. government is paying for individual Starlink units matches their typical market price. [Emphasis in original]

USAID is paying $1,500 for each standard terminal and the accompanying service, documents show. According to the Starlink website, a standard terminal set costs $600, while the monthly service charge costs $110, plus an additional $100 for shipping and handling.

There are quite a few unanswered questions, but we can be reasonably certain that Musk got a ton of great PR for himself and Starlink that was at least partially paid for by taxpayers.

Now back to China. Here's Smith again.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ odd allegation that Musk would do the bidding of China’s government:
This doesn’t make a lot of sense even in the narrow sense of business incentives, since China’s government is supporting a host of Tesla competitors. Some Western business executives over the years have fallen all over themselves to do favors for China’s government in exchange for promises of market access, only to see themselves muscled out by state-sponsored competitors after giving China’s leaders what they want; Elon seems way too smart to fall for that old trick. But on top of that, as I mentioned above, Musk seems committed to the defense of liberal countries against authoritarian ones. Nothing kills free speech faster than when the tanks roll in.
("Seems" is doing a lot of heavy lifting.)

Perhaps the Amazon founder was thinking of this. From the Guardian:

Tesla has opened a new showroom in the capital of Xinjiang, a region at the heart of years-long campaign by Chinese authorities of repression and assimilation against the Uyghur people.


The US has enacted a range of sanctions and regulatory and other measures against China over its continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including restrictions on US business dealings with local operators and suppliers.

President Joe Biden last month signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and the US government intends to conduct a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

Uyghur rights groups criticised the opening of the showroom, reportedly Tesla’s 211th in China. The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged its immediate closure, and the cessation of what it alleged “amounts to economic support for genocide”.

Human Rights Watch’s Australia researcher, Sophie McNeill, said: “Beijing and businesses have long banked on a global willingness to put profits ahead of human rights, even in the face of crimes against humanity, but we must not allow this to continue in 2022.

“Elon Musk and his Tesla executives need to consider human rights in Xinjiang or risk being complicit.”

Tesla has been contacted for comment.

Tesla’s decision drew some support on Chinese social media, and followed revelations a week earlier that US tech company Intel had requested suppliers not to source goods, services, or labour from the region.

One commenter welcomed Tesla’s support for “the development and construction of Xinjiang, unlike some other companies”, an apparent reference to multinationals seeking to reduce business links with Xinjiang over the rights abuses. 

Back to Smith:
This also applies to an even more damaging variant of “cancellation” — the ability of powerful Twitter users to sic mobs on people in real life. The most famous example of this is when Twitter activist Shaun King posted the photo of a man whom he falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. The true culprits were later arrested, but the man King falsely accused suffered extensive real-life harassment. Yet the company refused to crack down. Musk has a chance to address this as well.
Yes, we can all agree that it's wrong for "powerful Twitter users to sic mobs on people in real life." Here is Felix Salmon with an example
With more than 22 million followers, Elon Musk knows exactly what happens when he uses his enormous Twitter bully pulpit to bully female journalists. Science writer Erin Biba, for one, has made that abundantly clear, with the story of what happened when he merely replied to one of her tweets.

Which is to say: If you don’t have a strong stomach, don’t look at Business Insider reporter Linette Lopez’s @-replies right now. Musk did much more than just reply to one of her tweets: He has gone on a veritable Twitter rampage aimed at her. 

This is worse than just stalking: Musk is setting his army of fanboys loose on Lopez, he’s retweeting stuff they find, and he’s encouraging them every step of the way. Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for setting mobs upon his enemies; Musk should be banned too, but won’t be.

Musk’s harassment of Lopez is obsessive and deranged, to the point at which it should worry every shareholder of any company where he serves as CEO. But since even former journalists seem to think that somewhere in the madness there’s a legitimate beef, let’s put that idea to rest. Lopez has been reporting aggressively on Tesla for a while; her sources include Tesla whistleblower Martin Tripp, whom Musk considers a saboteur for talking to the press. Lopez has also, in the past, written about Jim Chanos, a dogged investor who is shorting Tesla stock.

One area where Musk does have relevant experience in is bots.

Russ Mitchell writing for the LA Times:

In early November 2013, the news wasn’t looking great for Tesla. A series of reports had documented instances of Tesla Model S sedans catching on fire, causing the electric carmaker’s share price to tumble.

Then, on the evening of Nov. 7, within a span of 75 minutes, eight automated Twitter accounts came to life and began publishing positive sentiments about Tesla. Over the next seven years, they would post more than 30,000 such tweets.

With more than 500 million tweets sent per day across the network, that output represents a drop in the ocean. But preliminary research from David A. Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, concludes that activity of this sort by so-called bots has played a significant part in the “stock of the future” narrative that has propelled Tesla’s market value to altitudes loftier than any traditional financial analysis could justify.

Smith also assures us that we shouldn't worry about Musk lifting the ban on the former president since "Trump has stated that he has no intention to return" and if you can't trust DJT... Still, it is useful to actually follow Smith's link.

“I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on TRUTH,” Trump’s statement read.
  But what if Truth Social goes away?

 Chris Cillizza writing for CNN.

Trump, ever the opportunist, announced in the fall of last year that he was starting Truth Social, a rival social media company that would be a free speech haven – unlike Twitter.

Except, well, Truth Social has been sort of irrelevant since it launched in February. Trump himself, the man around whom the entire operation was built, has so far sent one tweet Truth. And the special purpose acquisition company tied to Truth Social has lost 44% of its value since Musk first disclosed his stake in Twitter.


Trump insisted to Fox on Monday that nothing had changed.

“I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on TRUTH,” Trump said. “I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on TRUTH.”

But with Musk now in charge, the likelihood of Trump getting his Twitter account back just went WAY up. And if he is ultimately reinstated, he would get back the 88 million followers he had on Twitter – and the instant feedback that he grew so addicted to over the last few years.

(Trump has suggested he would not have been elected president without Twitter. “When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it,” he said in 2017.)

If you believe that Trump would somehow be able to resist the lure of Twitter if Musk allowed his account to be reinstated, then you haven’t been paying attention for the last seven years.

And with that I'm afraid Smith has broken me. There's more in the piece that need context but it's late and I'm too tired to finish the job. Before I go, however, I will leave you with this link to an article by the excellent Lora Kolodny who demolishes the notion that Elon Musk has any interest in any free speech other than his own. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Transitions in a democracy

This is Joseph.

Oliver Dowden is the chairman of the UK conservative party and a member of parliament. In the middle of a series of scandals with the current UK Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) he apparently made this quote:

Maybe I am not the target audience. And it is true that there is a lot going on in European politics at the moment that might benefit from consistent policy. But France has managed to have a successful election and it was far from the end of the world. 

The real issue here is the authoritarian impulse here. There are many reasons not to change leaders at a specific point in time. Perhaps the leader is widely popular and is fulfilling a mandate successfully. Or they have the support of the wide majority of the party who agrees with the policies. 

But something as vague as the national interest is an argument so vague it suggests never changing leaders. The whole point of democracy is short term instability and change to ensure that there is a method to obtain popular legitimacy. Governments in the UK have changed at many points of major turmoil -- July 1945 anybody? Or the US had an actual election during a civil war.

Leadership change is a natural part of the democratic process and it is never great when the normal process of transition is disrupted or disputed. We just need to be robust enough as a democratic society to handle transitions of power when it is called for (varies between a presidential and parliamentary system) and to have a strong civil service and judiciary to ensure consistency of the  legal structure (including changes in the legal structure) to ensure that business has a favorable regulatory environment to allow for prosperity. 

Monday, April 25, 2022

Strauss crosses parties

This is Joseph

Well, I guess this was inevitable. Strauss is the modern incarnation of the "noble lie" or the idea that people can be better off if they are misinformed to nudge them towards "correct" behavior.

This is an example from the US government under the Democrats. Here is the reason that is being given as to why the current administration (via the FDA) plan to delay the Moderna vaccine for children under 5 years of age for a few weeks:
The question, however, is whether regulators will authorize Moderna a few weeks ahead of Pfizer, or wait to authorize them at the same time — in June — in an effort to minimize confusion.

In an interview on Thursday with CNN+, White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that regulators will do them both at the same time.

Fauci said that the purpose of authorizing both at once, rather than Moderna a few weeks ahead of Pfizer, would be to not "confuse people."

"It's going to be two separate companies, two products that are similar but not identical, particularly with regard to the dose,” he said, explaining that Moderna's regimen for kids under five is two doses, while Pfizer's is three doses.
In case you think that there was confusion on the part of the reporters:
“And what the FDA wants to do is to get it so that we don't confuse people,” Fauci said.
Asked multiple times by CNN’s Kasie Hunt why parents couldn’t be expected to navigate having two options separately authorized around the same time, particularly for those who are eagerly waiting for a vaccine as soon as possible and would take whichever came first, Fauci said he couldn’t answer.

“I can't really honestly answer that question because I don't know the answer to that question. Because I don't have all the data in front of me,” Fauci said, adding that the data before the FDA was confidential while it was under review.

 Now, nobody is seriously arguing for a vaccine mandate in this age group. Only a quarter of kids aged five to eleven have been vaccinated since the vaccine was made available. Arguing that the data is confidential is fine but why is there a delay? Does the US government not trust individual parents and medical providers to be able to understand that different products exist for different age groups? 

We already deal with this type of nuance for products like aspirin, which has age restrictions on use in children as a painkiller, unlike ibuprofen and acetaminophen which do not. That is for a product that is commonly used as an ingredient in other medications and which is given to relieve symptoms at home, not at a clinic or pharmacy with a trained medical professional to explain details. 

There are a lot of threads asking why this might be on Twitter. But, honestly, the infantilizing response of "reduce confusion" seems so implausible that you feel you must be being misled. Or that the government has a very, very low opinion of the cognitive skills of the average clinician or parent. Because we had a period where only Pfizer was approved for teenagers and many of us were asked to get a Moderna booster to save Pfizer supply for these people. So we have actually already had a successful roll-out of different age eligibility for different vaccine products. 

What makes this so annoying is that it is a pure unforced error that reduces government credibility. Far better to say something like "I don't feel able to comment until the FDA reviews the submission data". Arrogant, yes. But it doesn't feel like either an obvious falsehood or an evaluation of the intellect of the average American parent that was . . . low.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Passport delays

This is Joseph.

The Canadian government is currently dealing with a backlog in passport applications. There is a claim that this backlog is because people put off their passport renewal. Fortunately, the article allows us to assess this claim.  So let us look at passports issued by Service Canada over the past three years:
April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020: 2,300,000
April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021: 363,000 
April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022: 1,273,000
What did Service Canada have to say about this:
"Service Canada recognizes that an increase in demand for passport services has resulted in lineups and longer wait times for service, and we understand the concern this may cause for clients," the spokesperson said

Now there might be an explanation for the slow service times that is credible. But it seems extremely odd that any competent agency would think that the 84% drop in applications during the peak of the pandemic was, in any way, likely to be a good prediction for the likely future volumes of applications. Imagine if there actually was a "catch-up" increase in applications to above the previous volume of applications. 

Now, it is possible that this delay in service is a consequence of pandemic precautions that make service provision less efficient. But then that should be a separate discussion about the costs versus benefits of pandemic precautions. This seems to be what the website says:

But this is now two years after the beginning of the pandemic? Are our governments so sclerotic that they can no adapt to changed circumstances with years of planning. These are, after all, documents that need to be processed. They have also increased the need for a passport (e.g., for children re-entering Canada) and there should also be consideration of this when planning policy -- are you able to provide the services to support the new policy.

In general, a lot of services have shown fragility instead of resilience in the face of the pandemic and it might be time to consider the trade-offs involved in the provision of essential services. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tucker Carlson and Susan Sontag


A physically idealized man stands, arms stretched out, head thrown back to the heavens, his genitals obscured by a mysterious primordial glow while "Also sprach Zarathustra" pounds in the background. What does this suggest?

Well, sure. I wouldn't phrase it that way, but I wouldn't disagree with the underlying sentiment, nor would most of the commenters on Twitter. Beyond that though, there's something familiar about this montage of idealized Nordic men working and wrestling in a bucolic setting, juxtaposed with portentous mystical imagery, Nietzsche references, and a voiceover talking about chaos and social collapse leading to the rise of superior men who bring a new order. 

On a completely unrelated note, I've been thinking about the essay "Fascinating Fascism" by Susan Sontag.

Here are some excerpts:

Admittedly, if The Last of the Nuba were not signed by Leni Riefenstahl one would not necessarily suspect that these photographs had been taken by the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi regime. Most people who leaf through The Last of the Nuba will probably look at the pictures as one more lament for vanishing primitives, of which the greatest example is LĂ©vi-Strauss on the Bororo Indians in Brazil in Tristes Tropiques. But if the photographs are examined carefully, in conjunction with the lengthy text written by Riefenstahl, it becomes clear that they are continuous with her Nazi work.

Riefenstahl’s choice of photographic subject—this tribe and not another—expresses a very particular slant. She interprets the Nuba as a mystical people with an extraordinarily developed artistic sense (one of the few possessions which everyone owns is a lyre). They are all beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, “have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe”); although they have to work hard to survive in the unhospitable desert (they are cattle herders and hunters), she insists that their principal activity is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting untouched by “civilization,” in a pure harmony with their environment.

All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she acted and from her own The Blue Light. The fictional mountain films are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; the Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which triumph over everyday reality is achieved by ecstatic self-control and submission. The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be-extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives, can be seen as the third in Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals.

In the first panel, the mountain films, heavily dressed people strain upward to prove themselves in the purity of the cold; vitality is identified with physical ordeal. Middle panel, the films made for the Nazi government: Triumph of the Will uses overpopulated wide shots of massed figures alternating with close-ups that isolate a single passion, a single perfect submission; clean-cut people in uniforms group and regroup, as if seeking the right choreography to express their ecstatic fealty. In Olympiad, the richest visually of all her films, one straining scantily clad figure after another seeks the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectator, Hitler, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort. (Olympiad, which could as well have been entitled Triumph of the Will, emphasizes that there are no easy victories.) In the third panel, The Last of the Nuba, the stripped-down primitives, awaiting the final ordeal of their proud heroic community, their imminent extinction, frolic and pose in the hot clean desert.

It is GotterdĂ€mmerung time. The important events in Nuba society are wrestling matches and funerals: vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death. The Nuba, as Riefenstahl interprets them, are a tribe of aesthetes. Like the henna-daubed Masai and the so-called Mudmen of New Guinea, the Nuba paint themselves for all important social and religious occasions, smearing on their bodies a white-gray ash which unmistakably suggests death. Riefenstahl claims to have arrived “just in time,” for in the few years since these photographs were taken the glorious Nuba have already started being corrupted by money, jobs, clothes. And, probably, by war—which Riefenstahl never mentions since she cares only about myth, not history. The civil war that has been tearing up that part of Sudan for a dozen years must have brought with it new technology and a lot of detritus.

Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive, corrupting “critical spirit.” (The book bonfire of May, 1933, was launched with Goebbels’s cry: “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit.” And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November, 1936, it was for having “typically Jewish traits of character”: putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.) Now it is “civilization” itself that is the defiler.

What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl’s casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that are being extolled. She is especially enthusiastic about the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the “heaving and straining” Nuba men, “huge muscles bulging,” throw one another to the ground—fighting not for material prizes but “for the renewal of sacred vitality of the tribe.”


But fascist art has characteristics which show it to be, in part, a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China is based on a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.